Masterpiece theater 

June, 9, 2010

Getty ImagesIt was the good kind of "curtains" for Stephen Strasburg in his major league debut.
Mere numbers could speak to how extraordinary Stephen Strasburg was Tuesday night, numbers like 14 strikeouts and zero walks. Or 101, the top radar-gun reading on the right-hander's fastball. Or you could take the words of Orel Hershiser or John Smoltz or Curt Schilling, who all, in one way or another, said they have never seen anything like him.

But you also knew, early on, just how great Strasburg's stuff was by reading the body language of those around home plate. Time after time, the knees of Pirates' hitters buckled when Strasburg threw curveballs, and time after time, Pirates hitters were caught flailing at the air with their bats, looking like cowboys trying to lasso a mosquito with a rope; they had no chance.

And Tom Hallion, the plate umpire, appeared to be overwhelmed at the outset, as well.

During Strasburg's time in the minor leagues, evaluators noted that the young umpires had a terrible time calling balls and strikes when Strasburg threw his curveball, because of its quality. It's the kind of pitch that is so good that umpires have never seen anything quite like it.

Andrew McCutchen led off the game and Strasburg threw him three consecutive fastballs, at 97, 97 and 98 mph, and you would have had to forgive Hallion if he'd assumed he was going to see a lot of fastballs for the rest of the inning. Guys who throw that hard will usually keep throwing fastballs.

But after No. 2 hitter Neil Walker settled in for his first at-bat, Strasburg spun a curveball that bit hard and big and bent right through the heart of the strike zone. Hallion didn't move; he seemed to freeze at his first look at the Strasburg curve.

He adjusted thereafter, reading Strasburg's curve more accurately (and, in a couple of cases, perhaps calling strikes on pitches outside the zone), and, like the crowd, Hallion seemed to get into the rhythm of the performance, demonstratively calling strikes. As Smoltz wryly noted on the broadcast, it's very rare that you will see the back of an umpire from the center-field camera as he calls a third strike, but such is Hallion's emphatic third-strike call, which has him almost twirling around.

Another time when we saw a glimpse of Strasburg's greatness was on the home run he allowed. He made a mistake with the 91 mph changeup, leaving it over the middle of the plate, and Delwyn Young took advantage of it. But Strasburg might be the only pitcher on the planet who would have given up a home run on that particular pitch, given the nature of Young's swing; Young simply dropped the head of the bat on the ball and Strasburg's velocity provided the power. If anybody else had thrown a changeup in that spot, Young might have hit a double, or maybe his drive would have resulted in a fly ball. But because Strasburg throws his changeup so hard -- there's probably nobody else in the majors who throws a 91 mph changeup -- Young was able to drive the ball out. Aaron Boone talked about this on "Baseball Tonight."

On Tuesday afternoon, I called Jeff Idelson of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and asked him if the Hall had any plans to ask for a piece of memorabilia from Strasburg's debut. He said no, because from the perspective of a museum, they weren't going collect items merely because of media anticipation.

Well, after the game, the Hall of Fame called the Nationals and made a request for a memento.

(By the way, when they put in a request, it's open-ended -- they don't ask for a glove, or a ball, or a jersey; only for whatever the Nationals and Strasburg are gracious enough to provide.).


The Nationals are not the only team that will feel the Strasburg Effect.

I contacted the Indians after last night's game and asked about ticket sales for Strasburg's next scheduled start, on Sunday in Cleveland.

Their response: Right now, Strasburg's Sunday start is the best-selling game of those remaining on their schedule for the rest of the season. And that was at about 10 last night; you can bet the phones will be ringing off the hook at the Indians' ticket office between now and Sunday.


In March 2009, a longtime scout talked about how Strasburg was the best pitching prospect he had ever seen. In fact, he believed Strasburg to be better than A.J. Burnett that day, as a San Diego State junior.

I'm calling that scout today and telling him he underestimated Strasburg, who needed all of one outing in the big leagues to do something nobody else has ever done.

Strasburg set a team strikeout record in his debut, writes Adam Kilgore. This was simply stunning, writes Thomas Boswell. The Washington fans were into this in a big way, writes Dave Sheinin.

Strasburg gives Washington hope, writes Wayne Coffey. The Pirates' Ronny Cedeno raved about him, as Dejan Kovacevic writes. It was a masterpiece, writes Gene Collier.

A whole bunch of Angels watched and were very impressed, as Mike DiGiovanna writes.


The Indians are now the beneficiaries from the Strasburg Effect. From midnight to 11 a.m., the Indians sold 500 tickets for Sunday's game. From 11-11:45 a.m. Eastern, they sold another 500. And the momentum was gathering. As of noon Eastern, they'd sold a total of 4,000 tickets since the rumors first started that Strasburg would be starting on Sunday.


Some Strasburg numbers, from the folks at ESPN Stats & Information: Batters went 0-16 on two-strike counts, with 14 strikeouts, a GIDP and a groundout.